Lewis and Clark were not the first European Americans to see grizzly bears, but, argues the author, “for the practical purposes of how we perceive the bear today they might well have been.” Using various journals and diaries from the expedition, the author sets out to define what the Corps of Discovery actually saw, and what, of those accounts, have influenced contemporary thought.
Schullery is the author, co-author, or editor of more than twenty-five books on nature conservation and outdoor sports. He is recipient of an honorary doctorate of letters from Montana State University and the Wallace Stegner Award from the University of Colorado Center of the American West.
According to his book, the Lewis and Clark journals first mention bears (black, not grizzly) in December 1803, while the men were in their winter quarters on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Black bears weren’t perceived as especially dangerous; they were recorded in the journals in much the same way as were deer and other wild game. It wasn’t until August of the following year that the corps became aware of grizzlies. Meeting with the Sioux in South Dakota, they noted that several tribal members wore bear-claw necklaces—the claws being from the white, or grizzly, bear. Clark writes that the grizzly “is said to be very dangerous,” and when they finally see grizzly tracks, Clark notes that the print is three times larger than a man’s. In October 1804, one of the corps spots a white bear and shoots at it, wounding the bear; he becomes so alarmed by its appearance that he runs off, leaving behind his tomahawk and gun.
The author posits that the Corps of Discovery probably saw, or crossed paths with, sixty-two grizzly bears. In addition to describing many of these sightings, Schullery heads off on some interesting tangents. Why, for example, do the men keep describing the bears as white? Were the bears of 200 years ago, because they lived in the open, a much lighter shade? And why were the bears of the Great Falls area less aggressive than those encountered earlier?
A bit less satisfying are the author’s forays into exploring the legacy of the Lewis and Clark observations. He mentions, in passing, that nineteenth-century writers depicted grizzly bears as monsters, while twentieth-century writers created the image of the bear as children’s pal. Less clear is why these trends developed.
Still, as we near the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, this work is a fine tribute to the rich legacy of the animal that “haunts the collective imagination of every human society to encounter it.”
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